Levi Strauss imprints on Valencia

All photos by Caitlin Donohue

It would appear they got in under the radar. After all, the Mission Mission blog post on the Levi's pop-up store on Valencia didn't hit until today, stirring up an American Apparel-sized storm of anti-capitalist harrumphs and hurrahs. There was even a press embargo on mentioning details about the space until yesterday.

But here it was, and here I was getting a tour of the store with various superlatively attractive employees, who were quick to remind me that the space is “not just a multi-national corporation opening up a store in a community.”

This according to Josh Katz, whose official title at Levi's is Head of Collaborations, Partnerships, and Creative Concepts. I prefer to refer to him more succinctly as "hot man with shockingly blue eyes in striped cardigan and tie made of interesting material who had the controversial idea of opening up a corporate entity in the thick of indie-rama Valencia land."

But where the devil were the clothes? Katz chuckles, adorably. “It's a good question – we make clothes, don't we?” Yes. But apparently that's not all that sets Levi's heart aflame. “Whether it's providing products or not, it's important to create physical manifestations of the brand,” says Katz. 

The company is pushing its association with American hard work – its 1900s Valencia Street denim factory, after all, was one of the first sites of workclothes manufacturing. Riffing on this image of industrial creativity, its stocked the 17th and Valencia storefront with all manners of vintage letterpresses and printers. Although there's a rack of work clothes up for sale, the space is not meant so much as a point of purchase as much as a branded community art "hub." Every Sunday, budding local artists can screenprint on free cardstock, churn out a zine on the cheerfully supplied Xerox machine, even cobble together a rack of words that a friendly staffer (some of them straight from their day gigs at the Center for the Book) will stick through the ancient letterpress on hand. As part of  a tie-in with its Go Forth ad campaign, the company's planning another photography based pop up space in New York, due to open Sept 18.

You'd be hard pressed (ha!) to find a more attractive print shop staff

“This allows us to sustain an engagement with the community. We've maintained strong relationships with every aspect of San Francisco,” Katz tells me. Knee jerk reaction: scoff scoff scoff. But it gets “tricky,” as Mission Mission's Ariel Dovas puts it, when you consider that the “printshop” is providing the Mission use of some pretty serious art equipment and space free of charge, and that those are both hot commodities in this neck of the woods. Plus, Katz and the company have scheduled workshops and other partnerships with a shockingly legitimate lineup of Bay area creative types, from Aaron Rose (who as far as I can tell is not really a Bay Area creative type, but I suppose that's getting hung up on semantics) and Alice Waters to Craig Newmark, the most famous list maker in the world, and a slew of nonprofits who you wouldn't think would throw in their lot with an evil company set to commodify and pablumize the Mission.

Right? I called Courtney Fink, who is the executive director of Southern Exposure, and whose community art-funding organization is one of the three to benefit from the proceeds generated at 580 Valencia (the other two are Plaza Adelante and the Women's Building). I asked her if she was surprised that Levi's sought out such locally rooted groups as partners for this venture. “I guess I'm not surprised,” she told me. “I feel like it's a strategy that a lot of big companies are taking, forming these creative partnerships to support what they're doing.” Fink said that Levi's was backing Southern Exposure's new postcard guide to the 45 art venues in the neighborhood, which they had been unsure where to find funding for. “As long as we can maintain our integrity, we'll do what we can,” she said, pragmatically. Fink also noted that Levi's had refurbished a building that otherwise might have sat empty, though she could see how there'd be numerous different opinions on their presence in the neighborhood. 

Of course, not everyone's stoked. I got an email from one Elle Ko, who is launching a guerrilla assault on this corporate infiltration. Quoth she: “that evening i decided to graffiti the storefront. i wrote 'SCAM', 'BUY USED', and other similar wording on the storefront. the graffiti was promptly removed the next morning.  the following evening i wrote 'UNEMPLOYED? KEEP SHOPPING' on the pavement in front of the entrance of the building, also 'LOCAL FARTISTS' [author's note: double ha!], 'PLAGUE' and a large red X across the door. i then dumped a pile of old clothes and rags in front of the entrance." She says her actions led to the installation of a round-the-clock security guard at the site.

“Levi's has been on Valencia for over 100 years,” Katz told me as we moseyed about his new to-do, bustling with a whole team of fresh-faced creative-type staffers. The company maintained a presence at Valencia and Brosnan (now the site of the SF Friends School) up until 2002. But to its assertion that they've maintained relationships with the area, I offer a hearty, resounding, whatever. Levi Strauss moved those jobs to countries with cheaper labor forces awhile ago. They haven't had a single factory in the US, in fact, since 2003. But their corporate offices are still in the city...

Let's go printin' now, everyone is learnin' how

I'm hollering at you though, Elle -- all that talk about “American workmanship” and “community values” is a little problematic coming from a company that moved all their production not only out of the neighborhood and metro area, but our entire country, seven years ago. But hell, who am I to harsh on a good time? Not to mention a powerful benefactor for organizations that kick ass in our neighborhoods. So if you're down, go and try out the toys, check out the admittedly cool workshops they've got coming. You might as well get some enjoyment out of it. It's like digging the aesthetics of a cool-looking national ad campaign. Oh wait, that's what it is.


Levi's Workshop

public events and Sunday studio hours through Aug 28, free

580 Valencia, SF




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Posted by Barse on Apr. 13, 2011 @ 6:07 pm

Where's the photo of attractive people that was meant to go with that caption? And what was with all the gushing about how "hot" the staff is? Was the chick trying to get a date with the hot guy with blue eyes and a cardigan and a tie made of interesting materials? Find a writer out of high school.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 19, 2010 @ 5:06 pm

send us a pic of yourself and we'll tell you what we think: marke@sfbg.com

Posted by marke on Jul. 19, 2010 @ 5:16 pm

Nicely written article! What I was primarily confused about was the purported relationship between Levi's and the print industry. Especially considering their latest marketing strategy of "we are all workers" I can't comprehend how teaching us printmaking on 2 ton antique presses helps the SF unemployment rates? Sh*t I love printmaking (studied it at art school) but its a challenging profession to make a living at, and its relationship with jeans is tenuous at best. Their adage that "everybody’s work is equally important" is especially ironic, considering humanitarian concerns for substandard work conditions of their manufacturing companies. I found this interesting: http://www.globalexchange.org/campaigns/sweatshops/levis.html

Posted by Justine on Jul. 19, 2010 @ 11:36 am

Is poison money.

Don't poison our community by reminding us of the jobs here that Levis abandoned.

The thing about nonprofits are that they are private corporations which makes them the tool of choice for megacorporations like Levis, given that they are no threat to the system, in fact legitimate existing disempower relationships.


Posted by marcos on Jul. 11, 2010 @ 3:11 pm

I agree with elle ko. This is just another example of a large corporation, whose public image has been tarnished, trying to make it seem like they're a friend of the people. Levi Strauss will spend a tiny fraction of their profits on projects like these, hoping that it will make them look ethical. If some people are naive enough to fall for it, Levi Strauss will gain a better image, customers & $ profit from this. I'm not falling for it, & you shouldn't either. Let's focus instead on the labor conditions of all of the people who do work for Levi Strauss. Also, do we really need to buy new clothes, & other new junk all of the time? No, we don't. Reuse!

Posted by caset on Jul. 08, 2010 @ 5:13 pm

your passion cannot be contained by brevity, elle. we appreciate your verve.

I guess it's worth pointing out that American Apparel doesn't use sweatshops, but Levi's has had a bit of up and down when it comes to human rights.

Check it:

Posted by caitlin on Jul. 08, 2010 @ 1:01 pm

you dipshits. It's HQ'd in San Francisco and has won numerous awards for its progressive stances - including being the FIRST major corporation to extend benefits to domestic partners of its GLBT employees.

Jesus this is an asinine essay and the responses are even worse. According to the shifting standards of what makes a company "good" 99.9% of all businesses, local or multinational, would be considered evil.

Posted by Lucretia Snapples on Jul. 08, 2010 @ 5:21 pm

you read the essay again, Lucretia -- Caitlin makes the point that its a local company.

Posted by marke on Jul. 08, 2010 @ 5:29 pm

Followed by the "concern" that Levi Strauss has had problems associated with "human rights." What company which operates overseas hasn't?

The point being that Levi's is a progressive company with progressive values which had always been on the forefront of new and creative policies which benefit its employees and this community. And then someone posts a rambling, vaguely-insane sounding comment concern-trolling about Levi's presence on Valencia.

Fact - there really doesn't exist an MNC better than Levi Strauss and those who find fault with everything are going to find fault with this company no matter how hard it tries. Including the commenter who seems to consider themselves some kind of hero because they engaged in vandalism of private property.

Posted by Lucretia Snapples on Jul. 08, 2010 @ 5:47 pm

Oh lucretia, please stop it.

Fact: not everyone in the world thinks that Multinational corporations, or indeed corporations are the best way to do business. No matter how progressive a large corporation may appear to be, they are usually regressive somewhere down the pipe, be in it labor practices, environmental responsibility etc etc. You're not that naive.

Fact: The people who actually sew together Levi's could give a rat's ass about the Levi store on Valencia or your love affair with them.

Fact: Someone writing in the Guardian is expressing an opinion you will consistently disagree with.

Fact: Get over yourself or start your own newspaper dammit!

Posted by Lucrezia Borgia on Jul. 15, 2010 @ 11:02 am

I got a Lucretia comment! You go on, girl, get nasty.

But on the real... Levi's does do some community-positive things (which I referenced in the post). It doesn't change the fact that "American worksmanship" seems to have lost meaning if you can use it to describe a company that produces its goods overseas.

Posted by caitlin on Jul. 08, 2010 @ 8:59 pm

100 years in the mission, i better get out of the hood or recognize.

copying machines and screen printing facilities: thanks for providing those, because there is such a shortage copy shops in the city. no wait, there isn't. except for the 24 hour variety (there is only 1 left.) maybe this store can provide that. oh no, people can't even loiter on the street outside the shop after hours, or a privately hired security guard will tell you to move along, while the police station is 1/4 block away from the storefront.

who runs this city anyway?

those riff raff running the independent screen printing shop that just opened up behind rainbow groceries, who needs them. now that this thing provides those resources conveniently located on Valencia and 16 on Sunday, the most convenient day of the week.

the Friend's school is a cage that shines like a beacon of hope for the neighborhood, situated within a 2 block radius from the old Walden House facility.
k-6 kids are cute and need to be helped (inside a cage,) and when they get older, we expect them to have problems, because that's the way the world works. nothing can be done except convince them that they need to voluntarily buy and wear a uniform to gain self esteem, Levi's can provide that, too.
and while denim is meant to last, everyone needs to throw their old uniform away and get a brand new set every year before they go back to school. when they grow up and become the jobless losers collecting glass and aluminum outside the cage, Levi's and fund the well-meaning social services in the hood.

everyone's work is important, including people collecting ore. it's also important that they are not paid enough to eat, clothe, and house themselves; if not, who's going to look like they need social services funded by Levi's and friends.

their kids can go back into the cage, it's there in the hood like a rock.

some people's work isn't important, though. my mother, who is a career seamstress and who has worked in this city in independent shops for 20+ years, would have worked for anyone, including Levi's, for minimum wage. but that's not union wages, thus she cannot be used. her work is important to someone, but not to Levi's.

low-fi art is one of the last things a ner'-do-well can afford to have a voice. Levi's owns that now. the message: art is only art when it's inside a store. when it's not in line with someone's agenda, it deserves to be wiped out. for $15/hour, normal, everyday people will do that with vigor and a sense of righteousness.

Posted by elle ko on Jul. 08, 2010 @ 11:06 am

Elle, I think you're being a tad melodramatic when you say that because Levi's opens a copy/print screen store that low-fi art has been "owned".

If we were all so susceptible to the "message" we'd all die a lot younger.

Mal-appropriation and co-option of the "underground" will always take place, because the peers of artists who work as "creatives" for agencies feed the machine. Someone's gotta pay the rent right? Someone's gotta pay for my child's food and diapers. I'll sell my friend's creations to eat.

Its awesome to be young free and single and have the time and energy to express one's self-righteous indignation, but don't get bogged down in the passing details. Create the future one piece of art at a time.


Posted by Samizdat on Jul. 19, 2010 @ 4:14 pm

100 years of claiming this land for Levi's. i need to either get out of the hood or stand in line.

copying machines and screen printing facilities: thanks for providing that, Levi's, because there is a shortage of copy shops in the city... no wait, there isn't. except of the 24 hour variety, there's only 1 left, but people aren't even allowed to loiter on the block you are on after hours... i mean *your* block now that you have a security guard there 24/7. the police station was like 100 ft away from the storefront, i guess they just don't know right from wrong the way your business does.

who runs this city anyway?

the Friend's school is a pillar of the community that looks a lot like a cage. it's nice someone plopped that there within a 2 block radius of where Walden House used to be, it was like a beacon of hope... in a cage. so i guess cute k-6 kids are important, when they grow up, we expect them to have problems (because that's the way the world works.)

all we can do as a society is to convince the disadvantaged they need to wear cheap clothes to gain some self esteem. then we be nice and use a small percentage of those proceeds to help them from their self inflicted problems, and most of it to encourage them to throw the old pieces away every 12 months and get new ones, so we can continue to increase our production volume because that's what props up our economy.

pillars of our economy, that's who runs this city.

and if no one is looking at you be nice to the needy, how would that help you market your products? everyone's work is important, except people who don't tell you they're doing this and that, that doesn't count because who gives a rat's @ss unless someone pays to put up posters all over town. people who are hulling aluminum and glass to the recycling centers all day and still don't have enough for both housing and food, their work is important: it's really important they don't get paid, because if they did, who is going to look like they need to receive the handouts being dished out?

a new screen printing shop just opened up behind rainbow groceries, who needs those independent riff raffs, now that this thing is conveniently located on Valencia and 16th and available to use on Sunday, the most convenient day of the week.

for $15/hour, some dude from Oakland will take bart across the bay and stand on the corner 10 hours a day telling people they need to move along.

for $9.85/hour, my mother, a career seamstress who has worked 20 years for independent shops in this city, would have worked for them. but those aren't union wages, so they can't and won't use her. her work is important, because everyone's work is important, but evidently, not to Levi's.

lo-fi art is one of the last tools a ner'-do-well can afford to use to have a voice. now they act like they own it. their message: art is only worth something when it's inside someone's shop, but when it's against their agenda, it deserves to be wiped out. for $15/hour and normal, everyday people will do so with vigor and a sense of righteousness.

Posted by elle ko on Jul. 08, 2010 @ 10:44 am

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